As a Protestant, I began researching the Reformation under duress of the repeating cycle of division and church splitting I experienced, both as a ministry leader and church member. Right away I was struck by two things: the biblical parallels in the Protestant split to the Great Sin of Israel, and Martin Luther’s father wound.
Martin Luther’s Father Wound
I recognized Martin’s father wound because I have one too, and my father wound caused me to behave in exactly the same ways Martin did. Martin ran away to the monastery to escape an abusive and alcoholic father. Initially he found some peace, but in his giftedness he accumulated responsibilities until they choked out his spiritual disciplines and prayer life.
Lacking the sap of daily prayer that could have healed his woundedness, and laboring under perfectionism from a critical upbringing, he fell into a habit of trying to catch up on all of his spiritual disciplines at once. Repeated confrontations with his spiritual failures made him manic to the point of despair.
He found solace in the assurances of grace in the Bible, but the commandments to works intolerable; he simply could never do enough to please God, he felt. No one could, he thought.
At the same time the Church had fallen into gross carnality. Martin was rightly appalled, and grew increasingly derisive of the hierarchy.
Laboring under a predominant fault of wrath, and a personal spiritual conflict between faith and works proceeding from his father wound, Luther deliberately opposed the historical Catholic Church and the Bible itself by preaching “faith alone” rather than grace alone, and “Scripture alone” rather than Scripture and Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
The Church, as the legitimate guardian of the Deposit of Faith and the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), stringently defended historical Christianity against Luther’s new teachings. As Martin translated the Bible into his native language, he went so far as to purposely mistranslate text to suit the new teaching so necessary to his mental well-being, such as inserting the word alone in Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of law.”
What horrified me, as a Protestant reading Luther’s writings, was his raging temper, appalling lack of holiness, and flippant attitude toward the Church and even the Scriptures themselves, for which he claimed to have reverence.
In History of the Christian Church, The Protestant Spirit of Luther’s Version, by Phillip Schaff, Luther says, “If your Papist makes much useless fuss about the word sola, allein [alone], tell him at once: Doctor Martin Luther will have it so, and says: Papist and ass are the same thing.
“For we do not want to be pupils and followers of the Papists, but their masters and judges … Therefore the word allein [alone] shall remain in my New Testament, and though all pope-asses should get furious and foolish, they shall not take it out.”
The writings of Church history prove that Catholic doctrine remained the same from the apostles to Luther, even if holiness and practice among the hierarchy degenerated.
Although Luther certainly had legitimate concerns, institutional scandal and sin in the hierarchy never nullifies the faithfulness and purposes of God in and through religious authority (Romans 3:3-4; Matthew 8:5-13). Even with their limited authority Protestant pastors affirm this of themselves, but deny it at the Reformation.
This is why Jesus never mounted a rebellion against the Jews or the Romans. He knew both were fulfilling God’s purposes, and that God’s judgment would occur at his hand at the proper time.
Jesus simply witnessed to the truth and accepted the consequences from the authorities. He trusted God to vindicate him at the proper time. He waited for God’s deliverance, judgment, and reform, which swiftly came in 70 AD at the complete destruction of the temple and its sacrifices.
This is the example Martin Luther should have followed. Instead, he deliberately and presumptuously taught “strange doctrines” even after the Church corrected him, as was her duty before God as the guardian of the Deposit of Faith.
Like the fallen angels before him, Martin stubbornly refused to submit to legitimate authority, on interpretation of Scripture, or any matter, when corrected (see Romans 13:1-2).
Martin’s was the same attitude I witnessed in the people who split my own church, and the churches in my denomination. Apparently, church splitting is an epidemic.
Luther’s rebellious, arrogant attitude set the pattern, and it was the same attitude I began life with myself. I saw plainly that Martin Luther and I were cut from the same cloth.
Martin Luther’s Little Sister
Throughout my adult life, my whole spiritual education at God’s hands has been on the issue of authority, and Martin Luther, in his own words, personally propelled me into the Church.
I recognized his rebellion for what it was, and even felt sorry for the root of it and all the unholy destruction it brought the Church. Like Martin, I emerged from childhood with profound “father wounds” that provoked sometimes violent rebellion against authority.
St. Paul warns fathers against instilling this wrath in their children with intractability (see Ephesians 6:4). Even so, God never let me off the hook when I exhibited rebellious or angry behavior, or even simply cherished it in my heart.
My dad was aggressive, dominating, and controlling, so I was determined no one would ever force me to do anything I didn’t want, ever again. Any fault in my best, most lauded efforts and achievements was pointed out by my father.
My gestures of love and closeness met with painful criticism. “Don’t call me daddy,” he said. “Call me Dad.” I spent weeks enduring the silent treatment.
As a child, anything painful between my dad and I—correction and discipline; his wildly swinging moods and out-of-control anger; his long, ugly silences—was characterized as my fault.
Later, criticism from others threw me into a trembling ball of wrath over the pain of not being able to measure up. You can imagine how difficult my relationships were with men in authority over me, especially those I loved or respected.
I broke things, self-harmed, initiated physical assaults, displayed regular volatile emotional eruptions, and severely controlled and manipulated my environment and family. I was emotionally out of control and drama ensued at any provocation.
I developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perfectionism. I self-medicated. I made vows of self-control and then dissolved in a puddle of tears upon breaking them, believing I would never be able to earn God’s love and that I was worthless.
Emerging from such an upbringing gave me real suspicions about church authority as well, especially given my experiences in denominational churches. When I was a twenty-something Baptist church leader, there arose a dispute against our pastor.
It was nothing more than a personality conflict, really, but I chose a side and had all sorts of opinions that seemed completely righteous and totally just. After all, I could prove every one of those opinions with a Bible verse. The problem was, God contradicted my opinions and my reactions to authority over and over with his word.
Rebellion in the Bible
When Miriam, Moses’ sister and a woman with some standing in the Israelite community, claimed the right to be priest and instigated a rebellion, God corrected her publicly, so everyone would know his will in the matter (see Numbers 12). When the laity rose up to usurp the hierarchy in the priesthood, God judged the matter publicly ( see Numbers 17).
King Saul was displaced as king because of lack of submission to God’s will, “for rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Samuel 15:23). King David’s heart was said to be like God’s because he was submissive to God’s will through a bad leader.
The fallen angels were cast out of heaven by their refusal to serve, and the whole world came under the assault of that division. In the Garden of Eden the insurrection threw all of humanity and creation headlong into debasement and destruction and death.
The notorious Great Sin of Israel occurred when the kingdom was torn asunder by an indignant general, and ten twelfths of God’s people were led into idolatrous faith and worship.
In no uncertain terms, I was made to know through God’s word that rebellion is—more often than not—the sin of Satan, and that to gather a posse and split a church was to oppose God himself: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).
In prayer, God always called my raging rebellion sin, pointed to the wound beneath, expected me to take responsibility for myself and my behavior, and drew me to himself for forgiveness, grace, and healing. Through repeated confrontations with God in the Scriptures over my woundedness and pain, he taught me to love him rather than fear him.
Go and Sin No More
When I read Martin Luther’s writings I understood that the “reformation” was really a rebellious church split on a monumental scale. Luther’s father wound led him to despise authority, and I realized I had been an unwitting participant through my own rebelliousness.
How could Jesus, or St. Paul, or any of the Church Fathers who died for its unity of doctrine and practice ever affirm or celebrate division in the Church?
I wanted no part of it. So I came home to the Catholic Church of my heritage; for me, “Reformation Day” was redeemed through my father wound.
Photo by Steven Van Loy
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I am a former Catholic who has spent the last 35 years in sometimes wonderful and sometimes very flawed Protestant churches and I’m considering re-entering the Catholic Church. I have been wrestling with this decision now for several years. I completely agree with your article on the issue of authority and I have observed the same thing over the years with church splits, etc. within Protestant/Evangelical churches. Thank you for taking the time to write and being open to sharing some of your traumatic and vulnerable experiences while growing up and how those experiences affected you into adulthood. Then, of course, I love how you describe God’s hand in bringing you to a true “reformation” on a personal level. His grace is truly amazing! I find this article very helpful. In the meantime, I’m studying, praying the Rosary, sometimes the Daily Office, and asking God for spiritual direction. Blessings.